‘Problem child’ Alberto left indelible mark across Middle Georgia

jkovac@macon.comJuly 3, 2014 

On his radar screen, meteorologist Walt Zaleski saw the atmospheric octopus meandering up the Georgia-Alabama border.

Tropical Storm Alberto, a 250-mile-wide wet mop, was about to wring itself out.

On July 4, 1994, it drenched Independence Day cookouts and washed out fireworks shows.

“We were issuing flash-flood warning after flash-flood warning after flash-flood warning,” Zaleski recalls.

There was no stopping it.

Then things got worse.

It stopped.

Air currents were too weak to whisk it along. For more than 36 hours, torrential downpours came in waves.

Zaleski and other forecasters at the National Weather Service’s Peachtree City outpost stood watch as aimless Alberto hovered overhead. On July 6, it jogged a clockwise curlicue and wandered toward Alabama, where it died the next day.

“Watching the system basically do an about-face over Atlanta and work its way back southwestward where it had already dumped a tremendous amount of rain was quite an amazing thing,” Zaleski says.

The slow-moving storm had waddled ashore in Florida’s Panhandle on July 3, largely unheralded.

After all, it was no hurricane. Folks figured it’d spill a few inches of needed rain before sailing off to the northeast. As Zaleski puts it, hurricanes are typically considered the big boys, the grown-ups, the adults of tropical weather systems. Tropical storms, he says, absent ferocious winds, are the children.

But, Zaleski says, “Alberto was a problem child.”

As it slogged along, the storm dumped more than 27 inches of rain near Americus, some 20 inches of it, there and in other spots, falling in a span of 24 hours.

Statewide, 31 people died.

Rivers swelled. More than 200 dams burst. Roads washed away. Houses were erased.

In Macon, where more than a foot of rain fell in a three-day period, the churning Ocmulgee River, which surged past 35 feet -- almost twice its flood stage -- swamped the city’s water plant.

Reporters from across the country descended.

“It started raining,” a local woman told USA Today, “and may never stop.”

Zaleski, the weather man, took calls from news outlets as far away as Austrailia.

“It was,” he says, “an historic event.”

When the rain finally stopped, a journalist said to him by phone, “Well, we’ve got blue sky now, looks like things are fine.”

“No,” Zaleski replied, “things aren’t fine.”

For as he spoke, biblical amounts of water had nowhere to flow but south.

* * *

Twenty years have passed since the bad rains came.

The local landscape has changed in the aftermath of floodwaters that submerged downtowns in places like Montezuma, devouring homes along the Flint River and, on the Ocmulgee, deep-sixing Macon’s drinking-water supply.

Back then, there were still a handful of Bibb County public schools without air conditioning. Macon Mall had yet to expand. The minor-league Braves were in town. The Wilson Convention Centre hadn’t been tacked on to the Coliseum. Across the Ocmulgee on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame was two years from opening.

Michael Albert Harrell’s memories of the flood sound like country-music lyrics.

Harrell, of Houston County, recalls “alligators in my dog pen, bream in my bathtub ... and my riding lawn mower 8 feet up a tree.”

As Macon geared up to go weeks without running water, then-Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency Director Johnny Wingers did his best to help locals survive the quagmire.

“Everybody was wanting to help,” he says.

Some 2,300 people volunteered at drinking-water stations and pretty much wherever they were needed. Many of them worked around the clock.

One day early in the crisis, Wingers heard panicked cries.

A crew was running a hose from the river bed up to a relief station in the old Kmart parking lot on Riverside Drive. The Army was pumping water from the Ocmulgee for people to use to flush their toilets.

The hose crew, trudging through muddy water, had come upon something scary.

“A bed of water moccasins,” Wingers recalls. “I heard the guys screaming.”

Marian Thames of Macon was eating breakfast at home one day while the rain was still falling.

She and her husband looked out their window and saw something curious.

“Our doghouse floating down the backyard,” she recalled in a note to The Telegraph.

Their dog, Betsy, was not in it. Betsy was safe with the Thameses indoors.

* * *

After skies cleared, the city settled in. Life went on, but it was far from usual.

With dish washing all but impossible, restaurants served meals on paper plates.

Companies brought in portable toilets.

John M. Cherry III, who worked at Geico, says the Porta-Potty people delivered “quite a few johns.”

“A majority of them,” he says, “were located in the loading dock area. Needless to say, the area was quickly renamed ‘the unloading dock.’”

Carolyn Cherry remembers calling her sister in Tennessee.

“I really missed the sound of a flushing toilet,” Cherry says. “(I) asked if we could come up for a long weekend and flush hers.”

Bathing was another hassle. Folks cleaned off as best they could. Some rinsed themselves in swimming pools. Others rigged makeshift showers.

The flood cost Donna Mason Jackson a new bathing suit. By the time the water was turned back on, she had to toss the thing. She’d bathed in it so much, she says, “it smelled like Dial soap.”

* * *

Marriages withstood the weather’s wrath.

Dona Robertson, who lives near Forsyth, found herself in a flood-wrought predicament.

Her husband’s ex-wife was stuck at the Atlanta airport. The ex-wife lived in Albany and, because roads were closed, she couldn’t get home.

Robertson said it’d be OK for the ex to stay at their place, that her husband could drive his ex home when the weather cleared.

“Three weeks later,” Robertson says, “after the bridges were reopened, she left.”

Three months after the flood, Kimberly Childs of Macon got hitched.

She used gallon jugs of leftover flood-relief water to make the punch at her reception.

Then she and her groom rode off into the sunset, the Great Flood of ’94 in the rearview.

Instead of cans, her friends tied the empty water jugs to the back of their car.

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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